Popularly known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, Vitamin-D is one of the essential nutrients and is considered critical to human health and well-being. Synthesized naturally in response to the exposure of the skin to sunlight (in particular, Ultraviolet B), the sun is considered the best Vitamin-D source. It is also found in a few foods and in vitamin supplements. Whether obtained from sunlight, foods or supplements, Vitamin-D:
- helps calcium and phosphorus metabolism
- promotes bone, muscle and cognitive health
- aids in cell growth
- modulates the immune system
- reduces inflammation
- inhibits certain kinds of malignancies
However, Vitamin-D deficiency increases our risk of health issues. Traditionally, Vitamin-D deficiency was only associated with rickets, a disease that causes children’s bones to soften and weaken and leads to skeletal deformities. But overtime, research across the globe has proven that a lack of this essential nutrient in our body predisposes us to an array of serious, even life-threatening illnesses.
Symptoms of Vitamin-D Deficiency
Common symptoms are:
- Bone pain
- Muscle weakness
- Mood changes
Note, however, that Vitamin-D deficiency may produce subtle to no symptoms. Or, symptoms may not appear for several years, increasing the risk of long-term health issues. This is why experts suggest that it is best to check Vitamin-D levels in the blood through annual tests/checkups and take corrective actions, as suggested by one’s doctor.
What Causes Vitamin-D Deficiency?
- Limited exposure to sunlight owing to lifestyle or geographical factors
- Consumption of less than recommended levels of Vitamin-D overtime
- Higher levels of melanin pigment (found in those with darker skin) that inhibits the synthesis of Vitamin-D from sunlight
- Inability of the kidneys to convert Vitamin-D into usable, active form owing to aging
- Medical issues (cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, etc.) that prevent the absorption of the Vitamin into the digestive tract
- Obesity which causes the fat cells to extract Vitamin-D from the blood
What Illnesses are Linked to Vitamin-D Deficiency?
- Osteoporosis:Our body, like clockwork, absorbs and replaces bone tissues on a continuous basis. Osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when the rate of creation of new bone tissues does not match up to the rate of degeneration of the old/broken bone tissues. The result – brittle, porous and weak bones, increasing the risk of fractures, back pain, stooped posture and so on.
Given the role of Vitamin D in the absorption of Calcium by the body and its direct impact on bone/ skeletal health, its deficiency increases the risk of Osteoporosis.
- Cardiovascular Diseases:Vitamin-D is not used by the body as is. It is synthesized into an active form called Calcitriol. This active form of Vitamin-D combines with Vitamin-D Receptors in the cardiovascular system to regulate the genetic expression and influence the metabolic pathways. The resulting Vitamin-D metabolite has been found to affect inflammation, thrombosis, etc. Vitamin-D has also been found to have anti-coagulant effects and anti-oxidation properties, which affect the cardiovascular health too.
Vitamin-D deficiency increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, strokes, peripheral arterial diseases, etc.
- Respiratory Illnesses:Given the role of Vitamin-D in fighting inflammation and modulating the immune system, it helps prevent respiratory illnesses/ infections such as Asthma, Pneumonia, Bronchitis, Sinusitis, Flu, etc. The immunomodulation role played by Vitamin-D is, especially, known to enhance immunity through the secretion of antimicrobial peptides that boost the mucosal defenses. So, the deficiency of this Vitamin will increase the risk of respiratory illnesses.
Note: Currently, research is underway to understand if Vitamin-D supplementation can help boost one’s immunity against COVID-19.
- Diabetes:People with Vitamin-D deficiency have been found to have higher insulin resistance and a heightened risk of Type-2 Diabetes. This is because Vitamin-D is known to help regulate the production of insulin by alleviating chronic inflammation in the pancreas while also improving the body’s sensitivity to insulin (which regulates blood sugar level). Some studies also suggest that a higher level of Vitamin-D helps reduce belly fat, regulate appetite and manage weight.
- Breast Cancer:Vitamin-D insufficiency and deficiency are linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. Its influence on normal cellular growth in the breast, immune-modular activity, anti-inflammatory properties and ability to prevent malignancies are some possible ways in which Vitamin-D helps reduce the risk of breast cancer.
- Prostate Cancer:Low blood levels of Vitamin-D are known to cause a heightened risk of Prostate Cancer in men. Vitamin-D may reduce the risk of prostate cancer owing to its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to prevent malignancies.
- Depression:Low Vitamin-D levels are linked to a higher risk of depression and impaired cognitive function. The Vitamin-D Receptors present in the brain help regulate behavior and emotions. Vitamin-D is also known to improve Serotonin (the happy chemical) levels in the brain, thereby, affecting the development of depression.
- Schizophrenia:A severe brain disorder, Schizophrenia, has symptoms such as hallucinations/ delusions, disturbed thinking, incoherent speech, trouble focusing and withdrawal from others. Those with low blood levels of Vitamin-D have been found to have a much higher risk of Schizophrenia. The risk is higher for those living in cold climates and higher altitudes.
- Dementia:Given its criticality in cognitive health, the low blood level of Vitamin-D (severe deficiency/ insufficiency) is known to nearly increase the risk of Dementia by around 50% (including Alzheimer’s, it’s most common form) especially in older adults.
- Autoimmune Diseases:Given the importance of Vitamin-D to the immune system, autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, etc. are linked to its deficiency.
How Much Vitamin-D is Necessary?
- 25-80 ng/ml – Healthy range for an adult
- 10-24 ng/ml – Mild to moderate deficiency
- Less than 10 ng/ml – Insufficiency/ severe deficiency
- Over 80ng/ml – Vitamin-D toxicity and calcium buildup in the body. Vitamin-D side effects (from excessive blood levels) include poor appetite, nausea, constipation, bone loss, kidney failure, etc.
How to Ensure We Get Ample Vitamin-D?
One of the best ways to get ample Vitamin-D is through exposure to natural Ultraviolet B (UVB) sunlight. However, inappropriate and/or excessive exposure to UVB sunlight increases the risk of skin cancer. It is important to limit the exposure to natural sunlight without sunscreens to a short duration. The time of day and the duration will depend upon the geographical location, season, and other factors. It is best to consult with your medical practitioner about the same.
Vitamin-D is present naturally only in a few foods like fish (especially oily ones like mackerel and salmon), egg yolks, beef liver and mushrooms. It can be found in fortified grain and dairy products such as cheese, breakfast cereals, soy drinks, etc.
Holistic multivitamins or targeted Vitamin-D supplements can also be consumed to improve one’s Vitamin-D levels. It is crucial to consult a doctor before taking Vitamin supplements to avoid adverse Vitamin-D side-effects.
Lead a healthy and happy life by maintaining a healthy blood level of Vitamin-D!